Prelude to the Battle of Rich Mountain
During the summer of 1861, Union and Confederate forces struggled for control of western Virginia. The area was highly important because gaps in the Appalachian Mountains connected the East to the Midwest. The Virginia Militia acted quickly, disrupting traffic on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and taking control of turnpikes through the mountains.
The U. S. War Department countered by sending 20,000 troops into the area under the command of Major General George McClellan. McClellan’s forces pressed the Confederate troops in the area throughout the summer and fall, gradually driving the Rebels out of the region, paving the way for the creation of the State of West Virginia in October 1861, although the federal government did not formally recognize the new state until June 1863.
Battle of Philippi
On June 3, 1861, Union troops commanded by Brigadier General Thomas A. Morris surprised a Confederate encampment at Philippi, Virginia and scored a Union victory. Many historians consider the Battle of Philippi to be the first significant land engagement in the Eastern Theater of the American Civil War.
Garnett Takes Charge
On June 15, the Confederate government placed Brigadier General Robert Selden Garnett in charge of the forces opposing McClellan in western Virginia. Garnett inherited a difficult situation. With just 4,600 soldiers, Confederate officials expected him to stem a federal onslaught that was gradually pushing the Rebels south and east. Garnett deployed his troops at two key passes through the mountains. He sent Lieutenant Colonel John Pegram, in charge of roughly 1,300 men, to guard the pass at Rich Mountain, just west of Beverly. Garnett took personal command of the rest of his force, which was guarding the pass at Laurel Hill north of Beverly. Under the direction of Colonel Jonathan M. Heck, the Rebels constructed a fortified position at Rich Mountain, known as Camp Garnett.
McClellan Plans to Attack
While Garnett’s men were busily erecting fortifications at Laurel Hill and Rich Mountain, McClellan arrived at Grafton on June 23, 1861, to coordinate an attack upon the Confederates. McClellan moved three divisions south from Clarksburg and ordered Morris’s brigade at Philippi to join him.
On July 6, McClellan set out toward the Confederate strongholds. After meeting light resistance from Rebel skirmishers, he established his headquarters at Roaring Creek, two miles west of Camp Garnett, on July 9. McClellan devised a plan calling for Morris’s brigade to demonstrate in front of Laurel Mountain, keeping Garnett in place, while McClellan sent the bulk of his force against Pegram at Rich Mountain.
Unsure of Pegram’s strength, McClellan was reluctant to order a frontal attack against the Confederate defenses at Rich Mountain. As McClellan deliberated, a local Union sympathizer, David Hart, informed the Federals of a remote route that led to his family’s farm near the crest of Rich Mountain. Upon learning this, Brigadier General William Rosecrans convinced McClellan to allow Rosecrans to lead a force over the mountain to attack Pegram from the rear.
Clash at Rich Mountain
July 10, 1861 — Rosecrans Advance and McClellan Deploys
Leading a force of 2,000 soldiers, Rosecrans began his expedition at 4 a.m. on July 10. His orders were to subdue a small Rebel contingent at the Hart farm and then to move down the mountain to attack Camp Garnett. While Rosecrans was performing his flanking movement, McClellan was establishing his position in front of Rich Mountain to catch the Confederates in a pincer movement.
Meanwhile, Pegram learned of Rosecrans’ flanking maneuver and detached two companies of the 20th Virginia to reinforce the position at the Hart farm. The rugged trail and bad weather prevented Rosecrans from reaching the Hart farm until after 2 p.m. When he arrived, he encountered stiff resistance from approximately 300 Rebels commanded by Captain Julius A. De Lagnel. The two forces engaged at 3 p.m., and De Lagnel’s outnumbered soldiers held off the Federals for two hours before being subdued.
July 11, 1861 — McClellan Retreats
After securing the Hart farm, Rosecrans’s orders were to turn and attack Camp Garnett, but the hour was so late that he decided to wait until morning. Having lost communication with Rosecrans and not hearing any sounds signaling an attack on Pegram’s rear, McClellan assumed the worst. Although his command of 4,000 soldiers vastly outnumbered the 1,000 Rebel defenders left at Camp Garnett, McClellan called off his attack and pulled back to his encampment at Roaring Creek.
Aftermath of the Battle of Rich Mountain
Finding that Rosecrans was at his rear, Pegram ordered the evacuation of Camp Garnett during the night of July 11-12. About one-half of the retreating Rebels made it to Beverly, but pursuing Federals captured Pegram and the others on July 13. Upon hearing of Pegram’s retreat, Garnett abandoned his position at Laurel Hill. As his troops retreated, Garnett was mortally wounded while directing his rearguard, on July 13, making him the first general officer to die in the Civil War.
Casualties at the Battle of Rich Mountain were light by later Civil War standards. The Union lost forty-six men (killed, wounded, and captured/missing), and the Confederacy lost 300 soldiers (mostly prisoners).
The Union victory at Rich Mountain helped to secure federal control of western Virginia and contributed to the establishment of the state of West Virginia. In the wake of a few more Union victories in the region that autumn, residents of thirty-nine counties in western Virginia approved the formation of the new state on October 24. On June 20, 1863, officials in Washington completed the formalities and admitted West Virginia to the Union.